ATLANTA — The Rams selected defensive tackle Aaron Donald with their second first-round pick in 2014, No. 13 over all, which means that 11 other teams, after assembling draft boards and consulting scouts and analyzing a trilogy’s worth of film of his demolishing offensive linemen, decided against taking a player whose dominance has since redefined his position.
“I think,” said Mike Waufle, the Rams’ defensive line coach at the time, “people were scared of his size.”
Donald is 6-foot-1 and, coming out of the University of Pittsburgh, was listed at 285 pounds. That is enormous in human terms, but smallish for a defensive tackle, whose function in a 3-4 defense is to blot out the sun.
Not everyone with the Rams coveted Donald, but Waufle was undeterred. He had long prized speed over size, and from the start, he viewed Donald as an outlier, grading him as the best prospect he had seen since 1998, his first season coaching in the N.F.L. Donald generated so much power that he reminded Waufle of the Russian boxer Ivan Drago in “Rocky IV,” who punched a computerized meter with such force that Drago’s manager remarked, “Whatever he hits, he destroys.”
In his first season, Donald was selected as the top defensive rookie. Last season, he was defensive player of the year. After registering 20.5 sacks this season, the most by a defensive tackle since 2000, Donald will almost certainly repeat.
The Rams’ ascent to a Super Bowl berth against the New England Patriots on Sunday from 4-12 buffoonery in 2016 reflects a certain harmonic convergence — the confluence of foresight, audacity and good fortune, with Donald embodying it all.
Coach Sean McVay, a brilliant communicator whose football acumen pushed the Rams to the forefront of the league’s offensive frenzy, has already spawned a coaching tree, and the team has traded precious draft picks to acquire volatile personalities who have meshed in a cohesive locker room. But before all that, the Rams had the conviction to draft Donald. In 2014, he was an excellent defender. In 2019, he is the avatar for defensive disruption.
With N.F.L. teams eschewing downfield passes for underneath routes, and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady averaging a mere 2.18 seconds per postseason throw in the pocket, according to Pro Football Focus, interior pressure is ever more critical. And no one plows into the backfield faster than Donald, a player New England Coach Bill Belichick called “pretty much unblockable.”
“If he keeps this up,” the Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle said, “he can change the game almost like a Lawrence Taylor.”
Randle transformed the position, too, playing at 6-1 and 285 pounds, but in a different era, when teams prioritized space-choking interior tackles to stop the run and tended to harass quarterbacks from the outside. Of the 54 instances in which a player had at least 16.5 sacks in a season since the statistic was first tracked in 1982, 50 came from defenders who didn’t play tackle, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Randle never quite reached that total, topping out at 15.5. But contemporaries like La’Roi Glover and Warren Sapp did, and Randle viewed them, and himself, as misfits, fueled by the perception that they weren’t fast enough to play linebacker, big enough to play offensive line or nimble enough to play running back.
Across 14 seasons with Minnesota and Seattle, Randle amassed the most sacks by a defensive tackle in N.F.L. history — 137.5 — by destroying quarterbacks and game plans much as Donald does now, just with less time to get to the quarterback. Donald had a league-leading 106 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The next closest player, Fletcher Cox of Philadelphia, had 95.
“When you get that interior pressure, they can’t run the sweep, the center can’t pull,” Randle said. “When you’re in the inside, you may not get there, but you’re in the quarterback’s face, and he can’t see because the pressure’s there. He sees you, and he’s more conscious of you. You’re right there in front of him.”
When watching Donald, Randle notices how his feet, hands and eyes work in concert, with a first step so quick that it can be mistaken for reflex. Donald’s arms allow him to get leverage on taller linemen — plural, considering the double teams he faces — beneath their pads, taking away their strength.
“Some guys at that position are top-heavy with skinny little legs, or are big down below but have nothing up top,” Dewayne Brown, who has helped train Donald since 2009 in their native Pittsburgh, said in a telephone interview. “He’s built like a block, totally proportional.”
A secret: Donald may be listed at 285 pounds, but, he said Tuesday, he has been playing at 270, maybe 265. (The Rams’ other defensive tackle, Ndamukong Suh, is listed at 6-4 and 307 pounds.) Over texts, Waufle calls Donald a male model and tells him he’s pretty. Donald’s father, Archie, asked Brown to remind his son that he’s not a bodybuilder. In a photo he posted to his Instagram story Monday, a shirtless Donald is shown flexing, muscles bulging, his abdominal muscles clearly defined. Celery has more fat than he does.
“He’s got, like, an eight-pack,” Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers said.
In the off-season, Brown helps Donald refine his speed and agility with 45-minute workouts laden with core exercises and resistance training, like the drill he performs wearing lateral resistors on his ankles. As someone drops a tennis ball eight yards away, Donald must sprint to grab it before it bounces a second time. Go on, try it.
To increase his strength, Donald works with Dave Andrews, the strength and conditioning coach at Pitt, who called him “a genetic mutant” and “a ball of dynamite.” Andrews challenges him with exercises in which he provides Donald with resistance throughout the entire movement to isolate a particular muscle group.
“It’s no different than when they’re in hand-to-hand combat on the field, and they’re manually trying to resist what he’s doing,” Andrews said. “Most likely, it takes two, maybe three guys, to slow Aaron down. You can imagine what it’s like in the weight room. Like, good luck. I walk out in a full sweat.”
Donald has long been strong and thick; as an adolescent, he would wake before dawn to lift weights with his father. But Donald was “real chunky,” Brown said, when he first encountered him as a junior at Penn Hills High School.
That season, Greg Gattuso, then the defensive line coach at Pitt, attended a Penn Hills game to scout one of Donald’s teammates. He had heard of Donald but had never watched him. Before leaving, Gattuso offered him a scholarship.
With each successive season at Pitt, Donald had more tackles for loss. His senior year, nearly half of his 59 tackles — 28.5 — came behind the line of scrimmage. At the N.F.L. scouting combine, Donald ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds, faster that year than Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (6-2, 214), Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 243) and Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence (6-3, 251). His 10-yard split, which gauges short-area quickness, was a solid 1.65 seconds.
From afar, Waufle yearned. As defensive line coach for the Giants, he replaced interior linemen with speedier ends to overwhelm Brady and unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII. He said he studied more game tape of Randle than Randle himself.
Waufle wanted a Randle of his own.
On draft night, Waufle was working on a project in his office when, around the eighth pick or so, he glanced at the television and noticed Donald was still available. He cycled through scenarios in his head.
He thought Detroit, picking 10th, would grab him. He thought the Giants, picking 12th, would, too. When the Rams were on the clock, he sneaked into the draft room, hoping for good news. When he got it, he nearly yelped inside.
The next time he saw Donald, told him something he had never said to another player: Don’t listen to anything I say.
“We’ll get you lined up, and you just go, man — you just go,” Waufle said, relaying their conversation. “And he did. He tore the league up.”
Waufle left the Rams when McVay was hired, after the 2016 season, but his successor, Bill Johnson, marvels daily at Donald.
“What makes him different is no different than what makes a racehorse so great,” Johnson said. “They’re just sort of made to be, I guess. I don’t know. If I knew, I’d be cloning it.”
Donald’s trajectory might have made teams reassess their evaluations of him. It might have even made them more likely to consider undersized defensive tackles in the future — imitation and flattery, and all that.
But there is only one Aaron Donald, and to the dismay of every other team, but most of all New England this week, he plays for the Rams.